This is the year Buffalo takes off. We know because the fuse has already been lit and there’s no way to stomp it out. How long the flight continues after this year will depend upon the determination of government and civic leaders not to let the momentum slacken.
The story on today’s front page, leading into The Buffalo News’ 2013 Prospectus sections, lays out what is occurring before our eyes: More than $1 billion in construction projects are planned in Buffalo or have already been completed. Yes, Buffalo, N.Y. – a.k.a the City That Couldn’t – is in the midst of a revival that even 10 years ago few could have predicted.
It’s something for all of Western New York to celebrate and, for that matter, all New Yorkers, whose income taxes have long helped to prop up this struggling city.
The list of projects is breathtaking for Buffalonians unused to development. Progress on the waterfront is due in large part to Rep. Brian Higgins’ insistence that the 2007 relicensing of the Niagara Power Project include money to help redevelop Buffalo’s misused resource.
With that infusion of cash and the creation of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., the possibility of progress became a reality. Today, the site of the old War Memorial Auditorium is being transformed into canals. The development will include retail, office and restaurant space. There will be skating on the canals in the winter.
Two indoor ice rinks are planned for the Webster Block just north of First Niagara Center. The Buffalo Sabres are working on that development, which also includes a hotel and indoor parking.
Meanwhile, the former Donovan State Office Building is taking shape into a Courtyard by Marriott hotel and offices for the Phillips Lytle law firm.
But that was only the start. A couple of blocks north, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is burgeoning with developments by the University at Buffalo, Catholic Health System, Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Kaleida Health. The sleek new Gates Vascular Institute opened there last year. To the east, between downtown and the Larkin District, more projects are in the works. It’s a startling and hopeful time for a city that had taken a beating with the long decline of manufacturing in Western New York.
The question, going forward, is how to keep up the pace when the current crop of projects is completed. Opportunities and threats abound.
The most critical need, long term, is to fix education in Buffalo. Young adults and empty-nesters are moving back to Buffalo in droves, but families with children still aren’t much interested. Why would they be? The district’s schools are under-performing, its graduation rates are pitiful and its dysfunctional labor relations frequently block necessary reforms. Yet, a family-friendly city has to be the goal for anyone who wants Buffalo’s neighborhoods – and its tax base – to thrive.
The arrival in Buffalo of the nonprofit Say Yes to Education, with its promise of a free college education to those who graduate high school, could be a turning point. So could the appointment of Pamela C. Brown as superintendent. But it’s not enough to assume the necessary changes will take place.
Violence and absenteeism need to be radically decreased. The School Board needs an injection of professionalism. The Buffalo Teachers Federation needs to look for ways to cooperate in improving education, rather than acting as a bystander to the accident it helped to create.
More immediate to Buffalo’s long-term prospects is for government and private-sector leaders to deal with the virtual emptying of the HSBC tower. The Canadian Consulate is gone. HSBC Bank has announced plans to move out this year. Phillips Lytle will move out once its new building is ready. The threat to Buffalo’s real estate rental market posed by that glut of office space is severe.
One possible tool in that challenge is Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “Buffalo billion.” It is worth considering the possibilities of using some of that money to help bring new tenants into the building or repurpose it as a mixed-use project.
City leaders also need to keep pressing for an increase in the maximum benefit of the state’s historic tax credit. Cuomo has proposed renewing it this year, but only at the current maximum of $5 million, which is insufficient to allow work to begin on some complex projects, including the restoration of the old AM&A’s store on Main Street. For now, that project might also benefit from some of the Buffalo billion, but long term, and as an improving state economy allows, the tax credit itself should be increased to the proposed $12 million maximum.
It is critical for Buffalo to build on the momentum that is pulsing through this city – not only for the sake of the local economy, but to ensure the decades-long sense of futility that has pervaded Buffalo for decades is truly dead and buried. Look around. This is no long the City That Couldn’t. It’s the City That Does.